Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 5, Dialogue Mechanics by B.Y. Rogers

I am positively giddy about this post. The next chapter in Self Editing for Fiction Writers is precisely what Matt Stover preached to me over two years ago and since then, I have had more than a few conversations about these principles, most result with negative results.  But I have held my ground on and will continue to do so. What follows is so important so if you want to learn to write, again, I beg you, get this book.

Again, my comments will be in parenthesis (and there will probably be many of them).

Chapter 5  Dialogue Mechanics

What is the first thing acquisition editors look for when they begin reading fiction submission? (Not going to tell you!)

Because it is such hard work, generations of writers have developed mechanical tricks to save them the trouble of writing dialogue that effectively conveys character and emotion…Not surprisingly, these are tricks to avoid if you want to you want your dialogue to read like the work of a professional instead of an amateur or a hack.  (My graphic artist suggested I take a look at writing.com, which I mentioned in my previous post. I looked at two short stories that were submitted for comments on that site. One was so terrible when it came to dialogue that I could not finish reading it. It was too painful. I suggested to both authors to get this book. They need it desperately!)

Imagine you are at a play. It’s the middle of the first act. You are really involved in the drama. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, “Do you see what is happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity?” (Great metaphor)

If your dialogue isn’t written well, if it needs the explanation to convey the emotion-then the explanation really won’t help. (AMEN!)

It’s showing and telling applied to dialogue.

Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence on the writer’s part, perhaps it’s simple laziness, or perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to break up the monotony of using the unadorned said all the time, but all too many fiction writers tend to pepper their dialogue with -ly’s. Which is a good reason to cut virtually one you write. Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.

(Rennie Browne and Dave King make a reference to “Tom Swifties” , which made me laugh. What got me seriously interested in reading when I was in the 6th grade was the Tom Swift series, by Victor Appleton II. Ah, the memories!)

Don’t make speaker attributions as a way to slip in explanations to your dialogue (“he growled,” “she snapped”)

To use verbs like these last three for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur.

Verbs other than said tend to draw attention away from the dialogue.

Said, on the other hand, isn’t even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device, more like a punctuation mark than a verb.  (BINGO! Think about this. When you read dialogue, do you really pay attention to the word said? We don’t, at least I do not, unless the author adds an attribution, which then makes me pause. Should not the speaker’s words in the dialogue tell me if the character is angry, sad, happy, clueless? If the writer builds the character correctly and develops the scene correctly, I will already know if the speaker is angry or not.)

(Here is something I did not know.) Decide how you are going to refer to a character and stick with it for at least the length of the scene. Don’t use “Hubert said,” on one page, “Mr. Winchester said,” on the next and “the old man said,” on the third. If you do, your reader will have to stop reading long enough to figure out that the old man is Hubert Winchester.

(Purchase the book and learn what “beats” are.)

If it’s clear from the dialogue who is speaking-you can dispense with speaker attributions altogether. (Again, build your characters correctly!)

(Learn the difference between dashes and ellipses.)

The truth is, only editors and reviewers really notice these things. (You may not think these principles are important but they will make the difference not only with getting your tome published but how many sales you make.)

“Mr (Robert) Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the “he said” locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom say anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper, (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: “‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.” The book may sell in the billions, but it is still junk. -Newgate Callendar, The New York Times Book Review

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